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Australia's First Battle and the Local Battleground

This blog has been inspired by Laura and her blog “For the Love of History”. Her theme this month is local history and as someone who has only lived in this part of Sydney for a few years I would like to know more about my local area, so this theme resonated with me.

I grew up in a part of Sydney that is renowned for celebrating its history – Campbelltown. There was no way you could spend your childhood there without picking up at least a small portion of the historic tale.

The memorial to the Battle of Vinegar Hill (Photo taken Sept 21)

By comparison when I moved into north-western Sydney several years ago, I was struck by the fact that few locals, many who had lived here their whole lives knew very little about the local history.

A few times I’d driven past a sign pointing towards a memorial to the “battle of Vinegar Hill”.

Every time I drove past I giggled to myself thinking, “sure there was a battle here of all places” ….turns out there was but I had to research it myself as most locals could tell me nothing about it.

This is an incredibly significant battle and rather unique so why don’t more people know about it?

Let’s go back to the start. What was the Battle of Vinegar Hill?

The year was 1804 so Sydney was still a very young colony, in fact European settlement hadn’t even made it over the Blue Mountains yet.

This “battle” was the first between government troops and rebel forces in Australia (again, why don’t more people know about this, I would have at least thought it would have come up in Australian history classes at some point but if I’m honest I had never heard of it before).

The reason why this “battle” isn’t better known may be because it is referred to as a ‘rebellion’ in most texts and rebellion in a convict colony was not an un-common occurrence.

Let me set the scene and share the story:

Castle Hill Convict Farm housed many convicts who had found themselves in Australia after taking place in the 1798 Irish Rebellion known as the “Battle of Vinegar Hill” (sound familiar?)

Many of these Irish men were convicted without trial and deported to Australia where they ended up at Castle Hill Convict Farm working under hard conditions.

The First Battle of Vinegar Hill, 21 June 1798 Ireland (George Cruikshank, 1845)

Two convicts Philip Cunningham and William Johnston managed to rally over 685 compatriots from Castle Hill and another 500 from across the Hawkesbury to join in a march to Parramatta (the seat of settlement and Government in the west at this time) and then onto Sydney.

The rebellion began when John Caveneah set fire to his hut at Castle Hill at 8pm, this was the signal for the convicts to gather with any weapons they could muster which included breaking into the government stores at the farm. Quickly the Government authorities at Castle Hill were overpowered.

News of the uprising spread rapidly with landholders fleeing. Elizabeth Macarthur and her children escaped via boat in Parramatta as leaked information suggested the farm would be raided when the masses reached Parramatta. In writing of the ordeal Mrs. Macarthur said:

"Our servant burst into the Parlour pale and violent in agitation … he told us that the croppies had risen … we then learnt that Castle Hill was in flames. The fire was discernible from Parramatta. It was recommended that as many Ladies as chose should go to Sydney, as constant intelligence was brought into the barracks of the near approach of the Irishmen … the number was reported to be 300".

While the mass exodus of Parramatta was underway Governor King headed for Parramatta to take control of the situation with the support of an additional band of troops who travelled all night, reaching Parramatta around 1:30am.

Once in Parramatta King declared martial law across the area of Castle Hill, the Hawkesbury and the Nepean which meant that locals could detain any rebels they came across and it also meant that anyone not following orders could be shot on the spot.

Major George Johnston was directed to head towards the rebels last known location with around 50 militia shortly after 5am. This coordinated defence was in contrast to the rebels who by this time found themselves not united with some becoming lost during the night.

A key factor that worked for the government forces was advanced information. A rebellion works best when it comes as a shock however there had been leaks in the lead up so the Government was at an advantage in that they had some idea of what was occurring before it did which made counter-moves easier.

The messages intended for the rebels at Windsor, Parramatta and Sydney, to declare that the uprising had begun never reached them so the party from Castle Hill and surrounds was alone, lacking the intended numbers. The rebels were supposed to gather at Constitution Hill in Toongabbie but when that didn’t happen, they began moving west towards where they believed other rebels were located (those coming from Windsor).

Castle Hill Convict Farm was built in 1801 (State Library NSW)

This move saw the rebels arrive in what is now the Rouse Hill-Kellyville area and though they had gained additional convicts along the way their numbers were around just 230-260.

Some of the factors in the favour of the rebels were that they had managed to secure around one-third of the colony’s armaments as they looted the small farms they passed through, and the military forces were very exhausted after having travelled (by foot) all the way out from Sydney and then onwards to meet the rebels. For this reason, the Government troops were accompanied by a mounted militia as well.

When the government troops arrived at Constitution Hill, they found it abandoned, so under the heat of the day they continued west towards the Hawkesbury expecting to have to travel around 27km (those poor troops)!

They only had to travel around 9.7km when they came across the rebels near Rouse Hill. A mounted trooper went ahead to reiterate that the Governor had declared an amnesty for anyone who surrendered within 24 hours. After no one surrendered, a Catholic Priest was sent to the group, the majority being Roman catholic Irishmen.

The rebels refused to listen to the priest so Major Johnston rode up to them and implored them to the listen. While he did this the Government troops closed in.

Once again, the rebels were given the option to surrender to which Cunningham, standing atop the hill, stated “Death or Liberty”.

Convict Uprising at Castle Hill, 1804 (National Library of Australia)

With it clear they wouldn’t surrender the order to engage was given. After fifteen minutes of steady musket fire from the government troops they advanced on the rebels with Cunningham one of the first to fall.

Without a leader some of the rebels tried to fight back but for the most part they began dispersing. At least 15 rebels were killed during the battle while countless more were killed during the efforts to round them up.

The Governor extended the amnesty to the 10 March, and many turned themselves in or simply returned to the Castle Hill site.

Seven of the rebel convicts received a whipping and were sent to the Coal River chain gang. Twenty-three were sent to the Newcastle coal mines. Thirty-four were placed in irons and it isn’t clear what became of them while another nine were executed including the ring leaders. Two did receive pardons from the Governor.

The memorial pays tribute to those who were executed (Photo taken September 2021)

The Legacy of this Event

The legacy of this conflict is characterised by an Irish ill-feeling towards the colonial authorities that would continue for a long time while for the authorities there was a constant fear of repercussions. It is thought that Richard Rouse was granted the land on which the rebellion occurred to stop it becoming a pilgrimage or rallying point for the Irish.

Another big factor in this story is that Castle Hill began as a convict town! Until I began researching this story, I had no idea. The initial Castle Hill site was 150 acres but today is just 49 acres. I think I’ll have to look into this more as again I can’t believe that I didn’t know about this part of the areas history!

Interestingly this uprising played a role in the 1854 Eureka Stockade incident with “Vinegar Hill” being the secret codeword for participants in this new uprising.

Why was it known as the Battle of Vinegar Hill (more specifically the second battle)? As it was a largely Irish rebellion led by political prisoners this was in honour of the rebellion that had taken place years earlier in Ireland against British rule.

A close up of one of the walls of the memorial (Photo taken September 2021)

The Memorial

The first thing to note is that the memorial’s location is questionable. The exact location of the incident is not known so the memorial isn’t necessarily linked to the historic event.

It was erected in Castlerock Memorial Park, Rouse Hill on 5 March 1988.

Though there are signs pointing to the site it is located within a large cemetery so it is easy to miss or think it isn't worth visiting as it is inside the grounds of the cemetery. The cemetery itself is the the nicest and best kept I have ever visited but there is no signage once inside the gate directing you to the memorial. It really isn't easy to visit unless you know where you are going, or in my case I knew what it looked like so after I spotted it I tried to make my way up to it. The only sign in the cemetery is the one pictured here.

The memorial interestingly notes the 9 rebels who were executed and also states that in honour of what took place. The site was renamed "Vinegar Hill" from 6 March 2005, but remember we still don't actually know where the battle took place so this is more of a gesture than any stamp that this was the place.

I hope you've found this insight into Australia's "earliest battle" enlightening. Many state this is only one of two such battles (the second being the Eureka stockade) but to make that statement ignores the many clashes between the original inhabitants and the colonial settlers and authorities.

The memorial is situated in a beautiful spot but as you can see from the outside it isn't much to look at (Sept 21)

The 9 executed men who are acknowledged by a plaque are:

Philip Cunningham - hanged without trial at Green Hills (Windsor) 5 or 6 March 1804

The remaining eight were court-martialled at Parramatta and sentenced to death:

Charles Hill - hanged at Parramatta 8 March 1804

Samuel Humes - hanged at Parramatta 8 March 1804

John Place - hanged at Parramatta 8 March 1804

William Johnson - hanged at Castle Hill 9 March 1804

John Neal - hanged at Castle Hill 9 March 1804

George Harrington - hanged at Castle Hill 9 March 1804

John Brannon - hanged at Sydney 10 March 1804

Timothy Hogan - hanged at Sydney 10 March 1804


Sources and Further Reading:


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